2021 snapshot of 5G
Where are we with 5G in the spring of 2021?
Let's start with services. There are three main types of connected services defined in 5G: Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC) and massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC).
With the commercial launch of 5G networks at the end of 2019 eMBB started to be available to consumers in a direct continuation of the evolution of previous network generations aiming to increase data throughput. Beyond reliable, high-quality video streaming 5G will be able to support new applications like extended reality (VR/AR) and real-time gaming that are of high interest to consumers and this segment will remain the driving force for commercial 5G network deployments.
mMCT is meant to connect a massive number of embedded sensors, an area that is highly cost sensitive and where 5G networks need to compete with a range of non-cellular LPWAN solutions.
URLLC, with its ability to deliver ultra-reliable and low-latency connections, addresses applications such as autonomous driving and production automation.
Compared to the consumer market these 5G IoT use cases are at an early stage and it will take operators a number of years to rollout the required infrastructure.
Talking about infrastructure - the market of telecom network equipment remains concentrated in a handful of telco specific companies, mainly Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei, Samsung and ZTE.
But for several years now the telecom industry has moved increasingly towards software-defined infrastructure with the virtualisation of the core network, edge and even the radio access network. It allows operators to move from proprietary solutions to software-based ones with Commercial-Off-The-Shelf hardware (COTS) to improve the flexibility, speed and economics of their service delivery.
5G, rather than completely replacing the previous technology generation, aims to maximise the flexibility and efficiency of existing and new infrastructure with virtualisation being a major part. Its rollout opens the infrastructure market further to multi-purpose suppliers such as NEC, Cisco, HPE, Dell and Fujitsu which will begin to challenge the leading position of the traditional, single-purpose suppliers.
And on the device side? Let’s first take a look at the chipset providers powering 5G smartphones, an area which underwent some dramatic changes over the last couple of years.
The leading manufacturer, US based Qualcomm, is marketing its modems under the name SNAPDRAGON and supplied it to almost every 5G phone in 2019. However, in 2020 MediaTek from Taiwan became a serious competitor with its HELIO modem. The rise was helped by the US ban of Huawei, creating a difficult situation for its chip business HiSilicon. Number three, Samsung, is building the chipsets for its own smartphones under the name EXYNOS.
Highlighting the challenges of 5G chip designs, Intel left the business at the end of 2019, selling the division to Apple. Though it will take time before Apple can replace Qualcomm chips in its devices, it shows Apple’s ambition concerning 5G connectivity. Last not least China-based chipset maker UNISOC joined the list of 5G modem providers as a challenger in 2020, for now with a focus on its home market.
Based on these chipsets, by the end of 2020, all major mobile phone manufacturers had released at least one model with 5G capabilities.
Last but not least - what about eSIM support in this latest generation of consumer devices?
The rollout of 5G networks and related release of 5G handsets was hoped to make eSIM a more common component across device makers. The good news is that those manufacturers that had previously released 4G/LTE phones with eSIM also support eSIM in their 5G models.
Samsung S20 5G, S21 and Z Flip
Huawei P40 Pro
Google Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G
Apple iPhone 12
At the same time the list of manufacturers/brands that have not yet released any eSIM supporting phone has remained surprisingly steady: Oppo, Sony, HTC, Xiaomi, Honor, RealMe, OnePlus and Vivo.
However, the increased activity of MNOs worldwide to enable eSIM services is a positive indication that the commercialisation of 5G in combination with consistent eSIM support from Apple, Samsung and Google might indeed prove to be the push needed to make the infrastructure available for a successful migration from plastic SIM to eSIM at scale.